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Helicopters revolutionise mountain rescue in Nepal

world Updated: Jul 09, 2010 09:38 IST

AFP
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Sabin Basnyat made history this year when he piloted the highest ever helicopter rescue mission, airlifting three sick and exhausted Spanish climbers to safety from Nepal's Mount Annapurna.

The dramatic and daring rescue, almost 7,000 metres (23,000 feet) up on one of the world's tallest and most dangerous mountains, pushed high-altitude helicopter flight to its limits -- and probably saved the climbers' lives.

It was possible thanks to a new service run jointly by local helicopter company Fishtail Air and Switzerland's Air Zermatt, which has been rescuing climbers in the Alps for four decades.

"By the time we got to the Spanish climbers on Annapurna they were in really bad shape, exhausted and suffering from frostbite and altitude sickness," Basnyat told AFP.

"They had already had to leave one expedition member behind, and there is no way they could have climbed down on their own."

Home to Mount Everest, Nepal is a major draw for amateur adventure seekers and top mountaineers alike.

But until recently it had no helicopters capable of being flown above 4,500 metres -- around 1,000 metres below Everest base camp -- and mountaineers who got into trouble had to rely on teams of sherpas reaching them on foot.

Then, last November, the renowned Slovenian mountaineer Tomaz Humar died after apparently falling and injuring himself during a daring solo attempt on the south face of Nepal's 7,234-metre Langtang Lirung peak.

Fishtail had just acquired a new Ecureuil helicopter manufactured by Eurocopter and specially designed to fly at altitudes of up to 7,000 metres, but the sheer mountain face meant it was impossible to land.

Air Zermatt, pioneers of a high-altitude mountain rescue technique known as the "human sling", dispatched a team of experts to Nepal, where they used the Fishtail helicopter to mount a rescue operation.

The technique, which allows injured climbers to be plucked from even the most treacherous slopes, involves a rescuer being harnessed to a cable and flown, dangling metres below the helicopter, to the scene of the accident.

There, the victim can be picked up, harnessed to the cable and evacuated without the helicopter having to hover for too long at altitude, where the thinness of the air makes flying difficult and dangerous.

Sadly, by the time they reached Humar he was dead. Mountain rescue experts believe he might have survived had it been possible to reach him more quickly, and the team resolved there and then to find a way of launching a high-altitude helicopter service for the Himalayas.

"The demand for this kind of rescue will rise, I have no doubt," Air Zermatt's Gerold Biner told AFP by telephone from Switzerland.

"You only have to look at the way the industry is going -- we recovered the body of a Russian climber from Everest this year, and there were 200 people on the mountain that day.

"That means the top climbers are being pushed to do the steep faces, the untested routes. If we can help make things safer, then we should."

As Fishtail already had the only high-altitude helicopter in Nepal, Air Zermatt decided to fly one of its Nepalese pilots to their base in Switzerland for training.

"We talked to Air Zermatt about how we could cooperate, and they were keen to export their technology and methods," said Fishtail chief executive Suman Pandey.

"We visited their base in Zermatt in March with one of our helicopter pilots, Sabin, who did some flight training with them. The next step was to base some Air Zermatt experts here during the peak climbing season."

Within weeks of his training, Basnyat had a major rescue on his hands.

On April 28 the team received a call from the leader of the Annapurna expedition saying climber Tolo Calafat was stuck 7,500 metres up on the mountain, snowblind and unable to walk.

Despite repeated attempts, the team was unable to locate Calafat, who was later pronounced dead. But another three members of the expedition had made it down to 6,950 metres, and a rescue attempt looked possible.

In order to fly to that height, the team of two pilots and a doctor had to strip the helicopter bare, removing its doors and all the chairs to reduce its weight to a minimum.

The move paid off. They managed to get the helicopter to within reach of the three, who were picked up one by one using the "human sling" technique and airlifted to hospital in Kathmandu.

Two weeks later, the team conducted another major rescue operation, airlifting five Chinese climbers and five sherpas who had become stranded on Dhaulagiri in northern Nepal in a snowstorm.

The cost of the rescue missions has to be paid by the climbers, or their insurers, but Air Zermatt covered the 20,000-dollar cost of training Basnyat itself.

Now it is now trying to raise funds from other donors to train more Nepalese pilots to use the human sling, which experts say will revolutionise mountain rescue in the Himalayas -- although not everyone is happy.

Some mountaineers fear the helicopter service could lead to an influx of ill-prepared amateur climbers in the Himalayas.

Others have said it will kill the adventure of mountaineering, raising the prospect of unskilled climbers being airlifted to within a few hundred metres of peak summits. But most in the mountaineering community have welcomed the new service.

"When you have 200 people climbing Everest on one day I think the adventure is already gone," said Air Zermatt's Biner. "We want to help people who are in deep trouble -- what could be wrong with that?"